How to Product Manage Remote Engineers
Working with remote engineers is a challenge. As of Oct 21, 2018 I’ve been a product manager with remote engineers twice:
- American Express — engineers based in Phoenix 3 hours behind
- XapiX — engineers based in Berlin 6 hours ahead
I’m in NYC and an ex-engineer. I love working in-person with my team so when my experts are elsewhere, it’s not as fulfilling an experience.
Here’s a few warnings:
- If you are not on-site, the on-site leader may not follow your roadmap. Be aware when the work you assign gets pushed sprint to sprint. I get it — we all like variety in work so when an engineer takes on a different project for the short term, that’s perfectly fine. But over the long term, this shouldn’t happen. Be aware of your resources and where (and who) is using them.
- If you aren’t an expert in your product yet, the feedback loop isn’t as strong over Slack and email. This can be especially true with technical products — the nuances of the technicalities become blended if you don’t have an expert next to you. Products advance daily so make sure that if you are remote, you consistently check with your engineers on the product details. No assumptions!
- When there’s a big project, it’s harder to keep everyone on track remotely. There’s less of a big hurrah because you are X hours away. So, if there is a big launch, (budget pending) fly to your team so the excitement is a bonding activity.
My rules of thumb:
- Visit your engineers! No matter how remote you are, make sure you make a trip out to their hub. My cadence of traveling out to see my engineers is once a few weeks after I join the job/team and any subsequent trips are dependent on your product and how often you lean on your engineers.
- Research the technicalities after your engineering discussions! Yes, I know you are swamped with alignment meetings and that 90% of your job is communication. But make sure you are growing in your understanding of the product. You should be taking 10% of job time to learn — 40 hours = 4 hours. Don’t assume you know the subject well because you pitch/explain it daily!
- When you join a new job/team, schedule time with every engineer to explain what you do and how you’ll make their lives easier. Then ask them to tell you about the top 3 problems they encounter that fit your description of product (this is dependent on your role but engs have come to me with tech tooling, relationship building, regiment of daily work, etc). The SOLVING of their problems will build some serious rapport because they know you can solve their problems.
- Address any problems head-on: if I am on opposing side with an engineer, I schedule time so we can clear up our discrepancies.
Opposing sides story: [One engineer I worked with for 6 months was disgruntled with me for a reason I didn’t know. So, we talked after standup and he thought that I wasn’t doing a good product job. I asked his thoughts on product role requirements and he listed 5–7 areas. For each of those areas, I (re)informed him of a my projects that matched every area.
He walked away thinking “Actually, my definition of a product manager is what Elizabeth is doing” and I walked away with a happy engineer. This is especially difficult with remote work, because that engineer will typically talk to their entire team before word gets to you of the problem. So be aware of every engineers’s style and if they’re getting distant. And be clear on your role for product deliverables (it’s very ambiguous!). ]
Any problems you’ve encountered? I’d love to hear your experiences— tweet me at @MusingMurmurs or leave a comment below!